• 17 July, 2024
Foreign Affairs, Geopolitics & National Security

Putin May Win the Battle Without Fighting a War

TP Sreenivasan Fri, 18 Feb 2022   |  Reading Time: 4 minutes

War is generally believed to begin when diplomacy fails. But President Vladimir Putin of Russia has used the threat of war to force diplomacy to resolve intractable issues. His basic objective is to keep the former Republics of the Soviet Union within the sphere of influence of Russia, even if he cannot establish a new Soviet Union. In fact, this is a point that the West is said to have conceded at the initial stages of the break-up of the Soviet empire. But there are various interpretations of what precisely was agreed in 1990 and this historical issue has been a bone of contention between Russia and the West. The Russian position is that that the West had cheated Russia “shamelessly” on this issue and that no state should strengthen its security at the expense of the security of other states.

Having made Russia a viable big power, Putin has set his eyes on Super Power status and the recent events are the first stirrings of his journey. Contrary to the general impression, he is not threatening to go to war against Ukraine, but to use Ukraine as a hostage to save it from becoming a NATO member and an ally of the West.

The demands submitted by President Putin to NATO are clear and explicit. Apart from legal guarantees against aggression by NATO, he demands that Ukraine should not be allowed entry into NATO. NATO should also remove weapons deployed in the vicinity of Russia after 1997. NATO should also rule out further expansion to the east. Russia has clarified that it has not given an ultimatum, but it will take immediate action if Ukraine is admitted to NATO. NATO has announced that concrete proposals on transparency, risk reduction and arms control have been made to Russia. The measures proposed are “preventive, proportionate and de-escalatory”, it said. Russia has not responded to the proposals as they do not seem to be satisfied with it.

The Russian troop movements on its borders with Ukraine since November 2021 are different in nature from its actions in March 2014 in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed on the ground that the area was gifted by Russia to Ukraine in the first place. Though the international community has rejected the annexation, Crimea seems to have benefitted by a phenomenal increase in tourism as the liberal Ukrainian visa system has been retained for Crimea. The annexation of Crimea is today a fait accompli.

The conflict in Donbass region of Ukraine by Russia backed separatists, which began in April 2014 is still continuing after 14,000 deaths. The region has become the most mine contaminated areas in the world. The Minsk Agreement meant to resolve this conflict is still not implemented, but it has come to focus and Germany has endorsed the Minsk Agreement as part of the current negotiations with Russia. India has also supported the Minsk Agreement.

Russia had never said that it would invade Ukraine. The amassing of troops was only to prevent the admission of Ukraine to NATO, it claimed. If that was indeed so, Russia is well on its way to blocking Ukraine’s admission. Several European countries are not averse to the idea of keeping Ukraine out of NATO, even though others like the US would like to keep the options open. It is generally believed that the process of NATO admission for Ukraine has been stalled. The Russian announcement of troop withdrawal may have been in the light of some assurance in this regard, even though the troop withdrawal has not been acknowledged by the west. “There is what Russia says and then there is what Russia does,” said Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State.

The French and German visits to Russia at the highest level show the difference in approaches between them and the US. The US would like to use the threat from Russia to keep Europe away from its temptation to embrace Russian and Chinese economic cooperation. Moreover, disruption in energy supplies from Russia to Europe will benefit the US in the future. For the US, NATO continues to be a bulwark against Russia and no dilution in its mandate can be tolerated. In a sense, Putin has exploited the situation to his advantage. In that sense, he has succeeded in his intention to bring Ukraine’s admission to NATO to the center stage and extract as many concessions as possible before ending his escapade.

Russia has gained another advantage as a result of its latest actions. It has come closer to China than ever before by obtaining Chinese approval to the military action in exchange for its support to China on the Taiwan question. Russia has transformed the expected US-China Cold War to a three dimensional one. The new bond between China and Russia has been described as stronger than the military pacts of the Cold War era. If this turns out to be a durable arrangement, the very structure of international relations will change.

It must be heartening to Russia that India has adopted a neutral position in the present conflict situation. India not only abstained on the resolution in the UN Security Council, but also avoided any mention of Ukraine in the Melbourne meeting of the Quad. This may change if a China- Russia-Iran-Pakistan Quad comes into being, but for the time being, Russia has no reason to be concerned about India.

Today, all parties, including the United States are calling for negotiations. “I am here today, not to start a war, but to prevent one,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the UN Security Council most recently. He acknowledged that in the past, the US had brandished what turned out to be false intelligence in the Security Council, as in the case of the war in Iraq. But he said that Washington would be more than happy to be proven wrong if Russia decides not to invade.

Russia seems to have gained much by its military adventure without invading Ukraine and without antagonizing Europe. All options remain open, but Putin may win the battle without fighting a war.


TP Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador of India and a member of the National Security Advisory Board and presently the DG of the Kerala International Centre. He has nearly 20 years of experience in multilateral diplomacy and has represented India at a number of international conferences organised by the UN, the Commonwealth and the NAM. He has chaired several UN Committees and Conferences.


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